Examining the lack of portrayals of African American women and mental health
Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) on Girls can’t stop counting because of her OCD. CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) precariously manages her bipolar disorder on Homeland. Toni Collette plays an artist, mother, and wife who must cope with her dissociative identity disorder in United States of Tara. Increasingly, we’re seeing more women onscreen dealing with mental illness, often in ways that treat their disorder as just one element in a fully human, complex character.
The statistics are atrocious. Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women in the United States. At least 67 percent of Native women who report sexual assault say that their assailants were non-Native men. In Canada, over 1,200 Native women have gone missing or been murdered over the last three decades, a stunning statistic that the government has done little to improve.
Native nations have their own tribal court systems, which are separate from state and federal courts in the rest of the United States. Until recently, however, tribal courts have lacked the power to prosecute non-Native people for crimes committed on Native lands. Considering the rampant violence by non-Native men against Native women, this has often meant that sexual and gender violence goes unaddressed.
For years, legal scholar Sarah Deer has documented ways in which violence against Native women has been overlooked by tribal courts and ignored by state and federal governments while pushing for stronger responses to this violence. In 2007, she spearheaded the report “Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA” for Amnesty International, detailing both the legal shortcomings and the hurdles Native women face when assaulted. Last fall, she received a huge boost to her work when she was awarded a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship, which gives her a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 to pursue her work for the next five years.
Scarcely a week goes by without a study on gender differences in the brain making headlines. “Female brains really ARE different to male minds,” reported the Mail Online on July 28, while a day later Salon framed the same research as “Women are getting smarter faster than men.” The tired old Mars-Venus debates play out simplistically in the media, like a never-ending tug-of-war, while feminists and anti-feminists alike rage, celebrate, or down their blood-pressure medication, depending on whose side has been thrown the bigger scientific-breakthrough bone.
In the early 2000s, when I was a burgeoning fashionable fat girl, I stumbled across the LiveJournal community Fatshionista. I loved seeing pictures of women my size or larger dressed in stylish, interesting, sexy clothes, embracing bright colors and form-fitting cuts, performing liberation and defiance. Even while I stayed on the outskirts of body positivity during my high school and college years, I still found a well of confidence and self-esteem that television commercials and women’s magazines never offered me.
In May of this year, comedian Sarah Baker garnered a lot of attention for the monologue her character, Vanessa, delivered at the end of an episode of Louie. Vanessa asks Louie (Louis C.K.), point blank, why men hate fat girls so much. “What is it about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that’s just not in the cards for us?” she asked.
At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, I once went through a bisexual stage.
I was a teenager, and I tried on the label as a way to describe my affection outside of prescribed definitions of love and lust. But like the too-small shoes I’d wear before I came across affordable size 12s, the identity was ill-fitting.
“I can’t compete with an Asian chick,” says the comedian Amy Schumer. When a busty, blue-eyed blond—a type that launched a thousand wet dreams—admits she can’t contend with Asian women, it signals a certain shift in our culture’s preferred sexual tastes.
More than a decade before Maureen “Moe” Shea was Hilary Swank’s sparring partner in Million Dollar Baby, she was struggling just to get a jab in. “There were gyms that closed the door in my face,” says the now 33-year-old featherweight champion. “One person said, ‘Boxing is for people who’ve been in jail. You should be at home baking pies.’”
We are the fighters. We are the women who don’t take shit from no man.
We are the women with the sharp tongues and hands firmly on hips. We are the ride-or-die women. We are the women who have, like Sojourner Truth, “plowed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head us.” We are the sassy chicks. We are the mothers who make a way out of no way. On TV, we are the no-nonsense police chiefs and judges. We are the First Ladies with the impressive guns.
The only time any teacher talked about birth control at my rural Idaho high school was in a home economics class. I took the class, called Parenting Skills and Child Development, mostly to plug a hole in my schedule that semester. Well into college, whenever I mentioned that I took a parenting class in high school, people would almost reflexively snicker: Isn’t parenting a set of skills everybody should just have? My sophomore-year roommate said, “I just think of classes like that as classes for idiots,” and went on to snark that we needed more classes telling people how to avoid becoming parents in the first place.